I am happy with life in Colorado Springs, in this middle-class paradise we call the Pikes Peak region. Those of us fortunate to live here don’t pay much attention to the realities of the social class system, that there are rich and poor at the extremes of the social hierarchy. That’s because most of us are comfortably in the middle.
Aside from the affordable housing crisis, the only time we confront harsh social reality is when we come face to face with homeless people and then it’s usually a fleeting encounter. Many live on the streets but the situation has not provoked a coordinated response from local government. But I predict that if we are not proactive we will soon face a serious homeless crisis. It could mean raising taxes to pay for homeless shelters, substance abuse programs, etc., which we need, but as is typically the case here, we act only when circumstances force us to act. And then it can be too late.
We have this attitude because we’re different from most other cities our size. I’ve lived in cities with far worse problems and I can tell you that we are fortunate not to have urban barrios or ghettos full of impoverished people, periodic mass unemployment, serious crime, large areas of blight, etc. We are mostly insulated from economic downturns in our low tax, small government environment by the presence of military bases which bring abundant federal largesse, regardless of economic performance.
Prosperity results from our low tax, small government environment. I like that our city and county governments manage to function and deliver services with low or moderate taxation. But occasionally things don’t work that way and there is a dysfunction, like the one we are facing now. The City Council, contrary to its usual habit, has decided to give us a tax increase in the guise of the downtown parking fee increases. This is dysfunctional for several reasons.
Number one, the council approved this increase without well-publicized opportunities for citizen input. Maybe I missed something, but the announcement of the increases came as a total surprise and without the usual lead time. Bang, two weeks ago we’re told that we’ll pay more on Jan. 1. If there is one thing guaranteed to raise the ire of the grassroots, it is when citizens are ambushed like this.
Number two, this is absolutely the wrong strategy to bring more people and business to downtown. We are a fast-growing city, but almost all the growth is far from downtown, to the east and north. In fact, we can say that we are now several large cities — along East Platte, along Powers Blvd., along Briargate, along Woodmen, etc. — all of them miles out on the prairie, under the convenient fiction that we are still one entity.
Downtown is not one of those “large cities,” and the tough battle is to keep it viable. Charging people for parking is not the smart way to keep downtown viable. The outliers will win that battle every time because they’re mostly made up of commercial zones, made for the automobile with free parking, wide streets, etc. As indignant writers of letters to the editor have said, can we contemplate doing away with parking fees? I think that is a good idea, at least experimentally.
Number three, contrary to what the downtown merchants might believe, raising the parking meter prices will not force people to vacate spaces and provide parking for successive waves of shoppers and patrons of eateries. And it won’t make people use the parking garages because people like the convenience of parking in front of a favorite store or restaurant. There has never been a lack of street parking downtown, even on the busiest days. The same goes for nighttime parking. Why charge for parking until 10 p.m.? In my 50 years of frequenting downtown after hours, I have never found it difficult to find street parking. If the city and the Downtown Partnership want people to move along, then raise the fines for expired meters, but don’t discourage people by charging more up front.
Lastly, the newspapers report that the City’s Parking Enterprise collects $5 million annually. Five million bucks is a lot of money. Just how is it spent? Until we know exactly how it’s spent and where, we should not ask citizens to pay more. I urge the City Council to immediately rescind the increases. We have more than enough already to pay for “improvements.”
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, a lecturer in U.S. Southwest history, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.